AUGUSTA — The National Rifle Association is making a big push for passage of a bill that would prevent private property owners in Maine who receive public housing subsidies from restricting tenants’ possession of guns in their rental units.

The bill to be heard Wednesday before the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee was prompted by Harvey Lembo of Rockland, a retired lobsterman who says a property management company infringed on his rights when it threatened to evict him from his apartment unless he relinquished the handgun he used to shoot an intruder last year.

In mailings to its members, the NRA says the bill would prevent public housing authorities from limiting the gun ownership rights of their tenants. But that’s not entirely accurate, because the measure is written more broadly, defining public housing as “any housing that is financed in whole or in part with public funds subsidizing housing accommodations.”

As a result, the bill also would determine whether private property owners who receive public subsidies, such as federal Section 8 housing vouchers, can prevent their tenants from possessing guns on the property.

IMPLICATIONS FOR NRA’S TOP GOALS

Lembo has sued his landlord, Stanford Management Co. of Portland. The case has drawn interest from the NRA and, most recently, from a gun control group. That group argues that a ruling against the company, which manages 1,500 properties across the state, would have longstanding implications for private property rights.

For some time, the NRA has been waging a campaign in a number of states on behalf of gun owners who live in public housing. In Maine, the organization won a significant public housing case in 1995, when the state’s highest court unanimously struck down a two-decade ban on guns in Portland Housing Authority projects.

The criminal justice committee will consider a bill sponsored by Sen. Andre Cushing, the Republican assistant majority leader, that would bar private management companies from including gun bans in their rental agreements with individuals receiving housing subsidies.

The bill has been the focus of an NRA mailing that urges members to contact state lawmakers and urge them to ensure that gun owners are not denied their right to keep and bear arms “regardless of their economic status and street address.”

The bill is being considered amid arguments in the lawsuit by Lembo, who shot an alleged intruder with a 1941 Russian-made revolver last summer. Lembo sued Stanford Management Co. because the company asked him to relinquish his gun after the shooting, citing a prohibition against firearms in his rental agreement.

Lembo’s story was quickly seized by the NRA because it aligns with its two public-policy arguments: Public housing subsidies should not restrict gun ownership, and gun ownership is a deterrent to crime.

Lembo’s case also prompted the NRA to dispatch a Washington, D.C., attorney to assist Patrick Strawbridge, Lembo’s attorney. Strawbridge is also defending Gov. Paul LePage in a federal lawsuit brought against him by House Speaker Mark Eves.

Lembo could not be reached for comment Monday.

SUBSIDIES AND EQUAL TREATMENT

In December, the attorneys representing Stanford Management asked a Superior Court judge to dismiss the case. On Feb. 11, the Maine Gun Safety Coalition also argued for dismissal, saying that a ruling in Lembo’s favor could affect the ability of a private property owner to restrict the possession of guns on the owner’s property under a private lease agreement.

Cushing said his bill, L.D. 1572, does not seek to infringe on the rights of property owners to impose rules on tenants, which may include banning pets, smoking or guns.

“People who live in housing situations that are publicly funded, either through subsidies or some form of rental insurance, should not be less of a citizen, or have less rights as individuals, as those who live in a private landlord situation,” Cushing said.

He said tenants in the private rental market can seek housing elsewhere if a rental agreement has a prohibition against guns. That’s not the case for people who live in subsidized housing or receive public housing subsidies or vouchers, Cushing said.

“They may be in the housing of last resort,” he said. “If those places get stigmatized as properties where guns are not allowed, people who do not respect the law will be more likely to burglarize or break into properties that fall in that category.”

The NRA has issued action alerts to its members that describe Cushing’s bill as preventing “public housing authorities” from including gun prohibitions in their rental agreements. But the bill wouldn’t change Maine’s public housing laws; it would change a section of law dealing with landlord and tenant regulations. It describes public housing as “financed in whole or in part with public funds subsidizing housing accommodations.”

LEANING AGAINST GUN RESTRICTIONS

Bill Harwood, a founder and board member for the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said lawmakers should oppose the bill, which he described as a one-size-fits-all approach to an issue that should be settled by landlords and tenants.

“If you’re a landlord in rural Maine where hunting takes place, then maybe it makes sense to allow guns on your property,” he said. “If you’re a landlord in a suburb or a city where the property is close to a school, then maybe it makes since to restrict guns from your property.”

He added, “Let tenants vote with their feet. If they want guns in their apartments, then they should find landlords that can do that. If they don’t want guns in their apartment buildings, they can find landlords that don’t allow guns.”

It’s unclear how many property management companies or landlords restrict guns in their rental agreements. In September, a representative from Stanford Management, the defendant in the Lembo case, said the language was included in rental agreements for the property in Rockland. But it’s unclear if it’s used in the other 1,500 properties that Stanford manages across Maine.

Rick McCarthy, the lobbyist representing the Maine Real Estate Managers Association, said the trade group doesn’t oppose Cushing’s bill outright, but wants to ensure that property management companies still have the ability to require gun owners to safely store their weapons on rental properties. McCarthy could not define the safety standards Monday. The association manages about 20,000 rental units in Maine.

While Harwood said that the bill and the court case could affect private property owners’ rights, it’s possible, if not likely, that his organization will be among the few opponents to testify Wednesday. Carleton Winslow, a board member for the Southern Maine Landlord Association, said his organization was not entirely familiar with the bill and had been led to believe it only affected public housing authorities.

Gun rights advocates generally fare well with the Legislature. In recent years, lawmakers have repeatedly rejected strengthening background checks, while passing laws that allow concealed-handgun owners to carry without a permit, and shielding the names and addresses of those who hold concealed-weapon permits. In 2012, lawmakers went against business interests and private property advocates in passing a bill that allows employees to keep their guns in their vehicles at work.

PREVIOUS NRA CASE NOT ON POINT

The NRA’s 1995 victory over the Portland Housing Authority could lend credence to the argument that renters don’t forfeit their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. However, the 21-year-old case wasn’t won on the argument that tenants have the constitutional right to have guns in an apartment. It was won when the Maine Supreme Judicial Court unanimously decided that the housing authority was acting as a municipality and therefore cannot dictate gun policy in public housing. Such decisions, the court ruled, should be made by the Legislature because of a 1989 state law that gave the state exclusive authority to regulate guns.

“A tenant does not have a constitutional right to have guns in an apartment,” said Harwood, noting that tenants forfeit other constitutional rights when they sign lease agreements. “The courts have never gone that far.”